Holding the Keys — Reformists, Parliament, and Digital Rights in Iran

In the last edition of Filterwatch, we argued that Iran has adjusted its policy-making processes over the last five years, shifting toward a process of ‘state-directed multistakeholderism’ which has allowed different segments of the state (including the three main branches of government and the institutions overseen directly by the Supreme Leader) to formulate long-term, consensus-based internet policy.

The first practical example of this emerged in the consensus around the development and implementation of the ‘National Internet’ (SHOMA) and Iran’s new filtering regime. Although at times this consensus has been broken — such as when the judiciary unilaterally decided to filter Telegram — in the absence of any meaningful engagement with civil society or private sector stakeholders, this ‘state-directed multistakeholder’ model appears to be here to stay.

Despite supposedly having a role to play in this system, the Iranian Parliament has so far failed to exert any meaningful influence over internet policy-making processes. The current Parliament — which is controlled by an informal alliance of reformists, pro-Rouhani centrists, and Speaker Larijani’s moderate conservatives — has so far neglected to engage with questions about the future of the Internet in Iran. But with a number of crucial new items of legislation set to hit the floor in the coming months, Parliament will soon find itself dragged to the fore of these debates.

In this issue of Filterwatch, we’ll explain why upcoming legislative battles will offer reformists in Parliament an unprecedented opportunity to articulate and deliver a fresh and progressive vision for national ICT policy. At the same time, we’ll show how it’s Parliament’s conservative Principlist minority that looks to be the most mobilised, forming a new lobbying group and already pushing forward tough legislation threatening citizens’ digital rights. Reformists will need to step up their game and organise if they are serious about backing up their election promises to fight censorship.

Shifting Gears — Parliament and Iran’s ICT Agenda

Apart from the patchwork of guidelines published by regulatory bodies such as the Supreme Council of Cyberspace (SCC) and Communications Regulatory Authority (CRA), Iran has only passed one major piece of legislation governing the internet and users’ digital rights. The highly restrictive 2009 Cyber Crimes Law was passed in the aftermath of the disputed 2009 presidential elections, and was frequently deployed to support the state’s systematic crackdown on online expression.

This legislative vacuum has contributed to a lack of overall clarity about national ICT policy, and so it should perhaps come as little surprise that the proactive new ICT Minister Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi is moving to introduce a raft of far-ranging ICT legislation to formalise internet regulation and users’ rights.

Jahromi announced his intention to bring forward five major ICT bills in late 2017, framing them within the context of securing users’ rights and giving citizens greater legal protections. These bills were meant to tackle the following five issues:

  • Electronic Financial Transactions
  • eGovernment
  • Data Protection
  • Service Provider Responsibility
  • Electronic Identification

Originally, these bills were to be introduced to Parliament over the course of 2018–20. However, these initial priority areas shifted in early 2018 after the state’s attempts to promote domestic Telegram analogues were met with wide distrust from Iranian users, and the ICT Ministry moved to accelerate the bills’ introduction. Over the summer, the introduction of the “User Data Protection Bill” became the government’s top ICT policy priority — a first draft was sent to the Cabinet in August 2018 for approval, before being introduced to Parliament.

It appears that the ICT Ministry has gained the full support of the judiciary and parliamentary leadership in the development of these bills, with representatives from numerous state bodies meeting to coordinate the legislative agenda. However, the bills will need to gain approval of the appropriate committees in Parliament, before being put to a parliamentary vote. This provides MPs from political groupings currently not represented at the SCC, ICT Ministry or Judiciary to influence the policy-making process.

During the last five years, President Rouhani’s ICT Ministry has yet to face any significant pushback from Parliament on its agenda, perhaps coming closest to a defeat in the case of Jahromi’s confirmation vote, which only just scraped through after the Reformist faction (headed by former presidential candidate Mohammad Reza Aref) supported his nomination. These bills could face similar challenges in the legislature.

Towards Transparency? — Bills Force ICT Debates Into Public Realm

The introduction of these bills provides a rare opportunity for Parliament to take an assertive role in the ICT policy-making landscape, either by offering amendments or voting the bill down if it fails to meet MPs’ standards. And even if Parliament fails to take the opportunity to amend or vote down the bills, the new legislation will create a number of quasi-judicial and regulatory bodies which guarantee spots for representatives from parliamentary committees

For example, the proposed User Data Protection Bill seeks to establish a ‘Central Commission on Data Protection’ which would be responsible for setting data protection standards, and would reserve two seats for MPs.

Although reformist MPs constitute the dominant faction in Parliament, conservative MPs have retained a tight grip on a significant number of parliamentary committees, which could see them representing these committees on any new regulatory bodies, and potentially wielding significant influence over policy development and implementation.

Another major challenge that comes with a more active Parliament is the lack of accountability it offers to citizens. The vast majority of votes in Iran’s Parliament are cast anonymously, and apart from the leading proponents or opponents of proposed bills, the positions of most MPs will not be disclosed to voters unless they volunteer the information. This ultimately makes it very difficult for citizens to hold lawmakers to account.

But despite this obstacle, bringing policy-making to Parliament is likely to have one positive effect, and that’s to force marginalised political factions to outline their position on each of the proposed bills.

Over the last five years — and in particular since Rouhani’s 2017 reelection — most policy discussions have been decided in conversations between Rouhani’s centrist administration and traditional conservatives in the Judiciary and Supreme Leader-aligned bodies. The Iranian Parliament, however, has a sizeable representation of reformists elected on the ‘List of Hope’, as well as hardline conservatives with positions much more closely aligned with those of former president Ahmadinejad’s government.

While we know that MPs from the Front of Islamic Revolution Stability — who in the past were closely affiliated with Ahmadinejad’s government — will demand a tougher line on foreign-based messaging apps, and of an even more restrictive implementation of SHOMA, reformist MPs have in large part been absent from the debate over the future of internet regulation, barring some vocal objections to the filtering of platforms such as Twitter and Telegram.

The Dangers of Cross-Party Unity — The New ‘Cyberspace Faction’ and the ‘Managing Social Messengers Bill’

It looks like MPs are starting to realise that ICT policy debates are going to move to the fore in the next few months. On 24 October Ehsan Ghazizadeh-Hashemi — the MP for Fariman and a former official of the Ahmadinejad-era Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance — announced the formation of a new “Cyberspace Faction” in the Iranian Parliament. The group claims 71 members from across a number of parliamentary groupings. Ghazizadeh, who is a member of Committee on Cultural Affairs, discussed the need for further ICT legislation in his announcement.

We only know the name of three other members of this group, but they are significant as all are members of parliamentary committees, suggesting that the so-called ‘faction’ is seeking to mobilise members across a number of influential committees such as the Culture Committee and Industrial Committee, rather than seeking to influence the development of bills in votes where the whole Parliament is eligible to vote. The faction’s key members include:

Perhaps it is no coincidence that around the same time as this faction is launched, we also come to learn about the highly troubling “Managing Social Messengers Bill” currently under consideration by Iranian MPs. On 22 October the Tehran-based magazine Peivast published a report revealing that the “Managing Social Messengers Bill” was being considered by Parliament. The article showed that the bill seeks to transfer a significant level of control over Iran’s Internet infrastructure from Iran’s Telecommunications Infrastructure Company to the armed forces.

Prior to the publication of the bill in full, the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) obtained a copy of the pending legislation which confirmed a number of fears about the bill’s potential repercussions for citizens’ digital rights. However, the leaked copy of the bill failed to contain any clues about who was responsible for drafting the bill in the first place.

On 18 November Iran’s Parliamentary Research Unit published a copy of the bill, and claimed that the parliamentary leadership has given the green light for the bill to be discussed by the Parliamentary Culture Committee before returning to the Parliament for a full vote. Although SCC guidelines published on 3 May 2017 handed the responsibility of bringing forward policies governing domestic messaging apps to the ICT Ministry, it is now clear that the proposed bill was drafted by MPs without even consulting the ministry.

While it comes as no great surprise to find the name of senior MPs from the new ‘Cyberspace Faction’ among the supporters of the bill, it is deeply troubling to see the name of 25 reformist MPs among the supporters of the first draft. These names included high-profile reformist MPs such as Alireza Mahjoub. The fact that this proposed bill enjoys a level of support among reformist MPs raises questions about the ability and willingness of reformist officials and representatives to stand up for citizens’ rights online.

In this sense, reformist MPs should be held accountable, and challenged to take a proactive role in shaping ICT policy, rather than limiting their interventions to reactive objections to the filtering of some high-profile apps.

Lacking Vision — The Missing Reformist ICT Agenda

Although reformists have lacked a coherent vision for ICT policy, the Rouhani government has not. Since the election of President Rouhani in 2013, we have seen significant investment in the ICT sector in the name of developing the ‘National information Network’ (or SHOMA), and the delegation of significant policy-making responsibilities to the SCC. Alongside this, we have witnessed the development of a long-term vision for the Internet in Iran which goes beyond merely the heavy-handed filtering of all undesirable websites. As we highlighted in November 2017, the Rouhani administration’s long-term plan seems to be set around delivering an inward-looking Internet, whose connectivity to the global Internet can be suspended as political events dictate.

This policy vision has been the product of collaboration between the Rouhani’s government’s ICT Ministry and senior officials representing the interests and views of Supreme Leader Khamenei. Although some senior reformists such as Nasrollah Jahangard have been at the centre of this process, the reformist leadership and senior officials have not offered any criticisms of the long-term development plan, beyond objecting to the filtering of some websites. The widespread silence on ICT policy is particularly galling considering the pro-internet freedom rhetoric deployed in Rouhani’s election campaigns.

Reformist MPs should have a real interest in the future of ICT policy, given the role of online platforms in the 2016 election that delivered them sweeping gains in the legislature. During the election, reformists relied heavily on online tools such as Telegram to bypass gatekeepers such as IRIB, as noted in Small Media’s 2016 report on the elections.

In the weeks running up to the election, reformist commentators claimed that filtering of Telegram had gained such urgency among conservatives as they feared it was being used to mobilise reformist voters on a massive scale. It’s difficult to quantify the impact of Telegram, but it was used widely to share information about their local candidate slates (such as the reformist ‘List of Hope’).

However since then, reformists have failed to use their parliamentary strength to advocate for internet freedom, or even to hold Rouhani’s administration to account. Their only notable activity was gaining two parliament seats on the CDICC, and using them to demand an end to the filtering of Twitter, in conjunction with representatives of the Rouhani administration.

In the coming months, reformists must clarify their vision for ICT policy and digital rights in Iran, and mobilise themselves to resist authoritarian elements in any new legislation. The sponsorship of the ‘Managing Social Messengers Bill’ by 25 reformist MPs is an early warning sign, and indicates that their support for digital rights should not be taken for granted.

Also, with Parliament set to gain a number of influential seats on ICT regulatory bodies, reformists need to be held accountable for their engagement (or lack thereof) in these spaces. If hardline conservatives are able to exploit the apathy and inactivity of reformists to gain influence on these committees, then reformists should be called out on their failure to stop them.

A Way Forward — How Reformists Can Deliver On Digital Rights

The coming months could prove to be a crucial time for shaping the future of digital rights in Iran. With Parliament set to play a significant role in shaping policy development, and with another round of legislative elections on the horizon in 2020, digital rights activists have an opportunity to put pressure on reformist MPs and prospective candidates to take meaningful action to safeguard digital rights in Iran.

Indeed, if MPs elected on reformist platforms fail to effectively use their parliamentary powers to protect citizens from the authoritarian instincts of hardline conservatives, then they should be held to account for their failures.

As a matter of priority, the reformists’ parliamentary leadership must clarify their position on the proposed ‘Managing Social Messengers Bill’. If the leadership does not condemn its support by 25 MPs elected on the reformist slate, the bill could stand a high chance of being passed in a full vote in the chamber. In such an event, the reformists’ leadership must be held accountable.

The more independent reformist MPs such as Mahmoud Sadeghi who have spoken out more vocally about digital rights, and who have criticised the proposed bill must use the upcoming parliamentary votes as an opportunity to engage with Iranian internet users, civil society actors, and the country’s community of tech entrepreneurs to develop a robust alternative vision for the Iranian internet. Based on what is being laid out in the upcoming legislative agenda, the vision being put forward by Rouhani’s administration and the SCC poses serious dangers to citizens’ digital rights — an alternative is needed.